Esther Allen, a professor at Baruch College, City University of New York, is the editor and translator of José Martí: Selected Writings (Penguin Classics). She is currently writing a biography of José Martí.

Follow Esther Allen on Twitter: @EstherlAllen.


The Art of the Possible at Havana’s Bienal

Roberto Fabelo's Put a Good Face On It, on the Malecón, part of the thirteenth Bienal de la Habana, Havana, Cuba, 2019

The Cuban government, which regularly arrests artists and journalists, also expected to welcome a record-breaking 5.1 million tourists this year. Cuba’s leaders are well aware that cultural capital is one of their nation’s major assets. Rage, pain, and dissent were not only openly on view in this year’s Bienal de la Habana in Cuba, but were featured and promoted with hashtags like #CubaEsCultura. In her powerful statement, Cuban artist Tania Bruguera expressed her admiration for the Bienal’s curators but explained that she was not attending because the Ministry of Culture was diverting resources to the Bienal in order to “whitewash its international image.” Her argument—that people shouldn’t travel to Cuba for the Bienal because to do so justifies the Cuban government’s human rights abuses—is one the US government has been making, in more general terms, for nearly six decades. Less than a month after the Bienal ended, the US delivered a gut punch to Cuba’s emerging entrepreneurial class, banning cruise ships and other vessels from docking in Cuban ports, and prohibiting group travel to Cuba for cultural and educational purposes.

A Place at the Table: An Exchange

Judy Chicago: a detail of The Dinner Party (1974–1979)

Judy Chicago: To clarify, except for Clarice Lispector, all of the women Allen mentions are included on the “Heritage Floor” of The Dinner Party and the accompanying “Heritage Panels,” which visually detail those women’s various contributions. Moreover, a photograph of Sor Juana figures prominently on one of the panels. Esther Allen: Readers may now take note that the names of La Malinche, Santa Theresa de Avila, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Gabriela Mistral, and Frida Kahlo are there, down underfoot.

Returning the Gaze, with a Vengeance

Marta María Pérez Bravo: from Para concebir (To conceive), 1985–1986

In the video pieces Transfiguración elemento tierra (1983), Jennifer Hackshaw and María Luisa González, of the artist collective Yeni & Nan, stare into the camera silently and without expression. Little by little, the viewer notices that they don’t ever blink, not once; to achieve this, both artists trained in meditation. “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at,” John Berger wrote. The radical, unyielding intensity of Hackshaw and Gonzalez’s transfixed twin gaze does not conceive of being looked at. It sees.

The Crazed Euphoria of Lucrecia Martel’s ‘Zama’

A still from Lucrecia Martel's Zama, 2017

In Antonio Di Benedetto’s novel Zama, there is no shortage of brutality. Not so in Lucrecia Martel’s film adaptation. She is kinder to her protagonist than the man who originally devised him—and for a reason: her Zama portrays a society so violent in its essence that there isn’t much Zama’s body or sword can do to make matters worse. This redirection of attention from individual acts of violence toward the structural violence of colonialism itself isn’t a departure but an acute reading of the novel.

Lygia Pape’s Radical Banquet

Lygia Pape: Livro do tempo (Book of Time), 1961-1963

By the time she made it, Brazilian artist Lygia Pape’s career had evolved through two schools of geometric abstraction—Concretism and its less rigid Rio de Janeiro counterpart Neo-Concretism. She had made paintings, sculpture, artists’ books, films, installations, and performance art. A retrospective of Pape’s work currently at the Met Breuer—her first solo exhibit in the United States—is highly conceptual, drawing on semiotics, architectural theory, and anthropology, but never losing a deep connection with the visceral realities of daily life.


In Castro’s Cuba, a compilation of photographs and text by the late Lee Lockwood, including hundreds of previously unpublished and all gorgeously produced photographs from 1959 to 1969, Lockwood photographs Fidel himself, and people who are looking at, touching and photographing Fidel. He also photographs the photographs and other images of Fidel that proliferate before his lens as the years wear on, before this omnipresent iconography of Fidel had begun to vanish from the Cuban street.

Cuba: We Never Left

Havana, Cuba, 2015

The hoisting of the Star-Spangled Banner in Havana on Friday, for the first time in more than half a century, has been met with perplexing and contradictory reactions in the United States. Such are the two faces of our simplified understanding of the Republic of Cuba: that only we in the US can save it, or that, by our very presence, we will inevitably destroy all the things that make it appealing to us. Neither view is shared by the Cuban people I talked to on the island this spring.